Seven Essential Ingredients for Leadership

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7. A Knowledge of Industry

A deep understanding of their industries helps these IT leaders be business pioneers.

By Mary Brandel

William Pence might be the first to admit that he's an extreme example of an IT leader who must keep up with the vertigo-inducing changes of his industry. In fact, throughout his three-year tenure at the online music subscription service Napster Inc., the first legal online music subscription service, Pence has had to not only keep up with the music download industry, but in some cases help create it.

In the early days, that meant grasping concepts like digital rights management and royalty administration and translating them into software code. Today, it means pushing things like mobile subscription services, deeper recommendation capabilities and integration with satellite radio partners.

"When we built the first legal Napster platform, there was no course you could take in school to build a system like that," says Pence, who is senior vice president and chief technology officer at Napster. "You just had to parse the problem down to its basic pieces and then find the simplest and most reliable way to build that into software."

And that requires a deep dive into the guts of how the music download industry works. "The rules for how we can or cannot use content are so Byzantine," Pence says. "The number of rights holders that have to get paid and the rules that differ by territory -- all that has to get coded into the software."

What It Takes

But while Pence might be a far-out example of an IT leader who also has to be an industry expert, he says the increasingly interdependent relationship of technology and competitiveness means that anyone who wants to lead a team of technologists needs to be acutely aware of industry needs.

Take Danny Siegel, director of data warehousing and business intelligence at Pfizer Inc. in New York. In the past two years, the pharmaceutical giant has made numerous acquisitions, which isn't unusual for a big company trying to continually develop a pipeline of new drugs. Integrating all those acquisitions in a timely manner is a major undertaking, but because Siegel has worked in the industry since 2001, he's equipped to expedite the data and systems integration process.

"Understanding the business really helps you understand acutely which data needs to stay; what needs to be accessible by the attorneys, the manufacturing guys and the marketing folks; and what's unique to the acquired entity," he says. "It makes the depth of analysis a lot lighter."

Siegel's industry knowledge also helps his IT team build more effective systems. For instance, earlier this year, his group was asked to embark on a project to deliver some highly summarized data and some deeply detailed data to existing process-based applications. "Because I have deep process knowledge," Siegel says, "I challenged their requirements and the status-quo thinking in order to simplify the technology components and influence some changes in the processes."

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